The United States of Running

6 Mental Tips to Get You Through Running Long Races, From a Sports Psychologist

Dominique Michelle Astorino

Photo: Getty Images/Matthew Leete
If you’ve ever run more than a mile, you know that a long run is not just greuling physically — it’s totally a mental game, too (this applies even if you haven’t run more than a mile; it’s not hard to imagine how tough that is).

As your feet pound the pavement, your lungs feel like they're on fire, and your IT bands start to tighten, you have to really psych yourself up; this is especially true if you’re completing an endurance event, like a 10K, half marathon, or full marathon.

But behind the blood, sweat, and tears are some tricks to keep yourself positive, happy, and focused on that finish-line runner’s high. Deborah N. Roche, PhD, Sports Psychologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) has some quick tips for overcoming the hurdles of long runs — whether you’re training for your first distance race, or trying to get through mile 26 for the 26th time. “Managing injury, stress, and anxiety — both during training and on race day — is key to one’s success,” she says.

The following morsels of advice will not only stave off that feeling of dread when you sense you’re at the end of your rope mid-run, but can also help improve performance.

Manage Expectations

“Whether you’re a first-time distance runner or a long-time marathoner there are several hurdles that come with training for longer races,” says Dr. Roche. This is where tip one comes in: adjust your expectations. “It is hard to have the ‘perfect’ training before a race, and managing the ups and downs can be challenging for the most veteran runners. Distance training is time consuming; often runners miss long runs or need to cut runs short during the week because of injury, work, or family obligations.”

It’s important to drop the idea of an ‘ideal’ training schedule — glorious sunrise runs before work, a sweaty lunchtime jaunt around your office building, the perfect post-run meals. The reality is a lot messier, and like Dr. Roche said, it can be tough regardless of your experience level.

Be Flexible

On the note of managing expectations, “The best advice I can recommend is to be flexible,” says Dr. Roche. “While we may have a plan for training and race day, be willing to adjust.”

This means making accommodations for off days and injuries, even if it’s not ‘part of the plan,’ — to make sure you stay healthy physically and mentally. “If you have nagging pain in your knee, take a few days off and rest, and if it still is bothering you, get it checked out before pushing through it,” she says. “Recognize that a day off or a ‘slow’ pace run won’t destroy the training.”

Remember: This Is Supposed to Be Enjoyable!

Remember your why! “Another important reminder is to enjoy the process,” she says. “Sometimes our goals can consume us, and we forget we started running or signed up for this race because we like to run. Try to keep that in mind.”

Just Keep Breathing

Like Ariana Grande once instructed, just keep breathing… and breathing, and breathing, and breathing. “Take a deep breath,” says Dr. Roche. “Most things are more manageable when we take a minute to slow our system down so we can calmly think about next steps.”

Whether you’ve hit a point of fatigue, are starting to feel pain, or are simply mentally exhausted in those double digit miles, try to bring your attention back to your breath.

Take it One Step, One Moment, One Mile at a Time

If you’re hitting a rough patch in the race (or training run), “Try to focus on one thing at a time,” says Dr. Roche. “When you are running a marathon (or a half), you are going to be out there for a while. It is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed if things don’t go according to plan.” When you’re trying to keep your head in a positive space, she suggests you “Set small goals to build to bigger ones.”

“If you are feeling fatigued early, focus on just getting to the next stop sign, and then pick another spot and focus on getting to that one — maybe it’s the fourth tree,” she says. “By keeping the goals smaller, you will likely get through the rough patch, and you will feel [well enough] to pick up your pace later.”

Pump Yourself Up

Whether you’ve run a race or have simply watched from a distance, you’ve likely seen local spectators and supportive friends and family members of runners with signs, bells, pom poms, and more. This is a crucial element for helping athletes push through mental and physical hurdles.

But what happens if they’re not there? It could be a less popular race, in a more remote area, or simply a training run. “It's tough if there aren’t any spectators,” says Dr. Roche. “I think you want to try and be creative if there isn’t a built-in cheer section.”

What does this mean? For one, try running with a buddy, she says. Having someone to talk to may help push you, she explains, “And you can push them during those quieter parts of a race.”

You can also use “cue words,” she says. “We use these in sport psychology for motivation and focus. You select a phrase or few words that help you stay motivated and to keep going. It can be a lyric from your favorite song, an inspirational quote, or something simple like ‘you got this.’” Try writing it on your hand, or repeating it to yourself like a mantra, or both!

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